The head of the federal agency that produces U.S. nuclear weapons has privately proposed to end public access to key safety reports from a federal watchdog group that monitors ten sites involved in weapons production.
Frank Klotz, administrator of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, made the proposal to members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in an October 13 meeting in his office overlooking the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, multiple U.S. officials said.
Klotz contended that recent media stories about safety lapses that relied partially on the board’s weekly disclosures were potentially counterproductive to the NNSA’s mission, the officials said. His solution was presented as the Trump administration considers an acceleration and expansion of nuclear warhead production at the federally-owned sites inspected by the board in eight states, including California, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Tennessee
Four of the safety board’s five members heard Klotz’s appeal, and one of them — Bruce Hamilton, a Republican — responded by drafting and briefly circulating a proposal among the members to stop releasing the board’s weekly and monthly accounts of safety concerns at nuclear weapons factories and laboratories.
Under Hamilton’s proposal, these accounts of accidents and problematic incidents — prepared by board staff that routinely visit or are stationed at these federally-owned sites — would be replaced by oral reports by those staff members to their superiors in Washington, which would not be divulged to the public, according to multiple federal officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic under discussion.
The proposal represented the second effort by federal officials in recent months to curtail public access to information about persistent safety problems in the nuclear production complex, which the Center for Public Integrity documented in articles published between June and August.
In June, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s chairman, Sean Sullivan — Hamilton’s fellow Republican on the board — secretly urged the Trump administration to eliminate the safety board altogether. The White House has said it will address the idea early next year, but some lawmakers have already expressed opposition.
The Center’s articles detailed a series of alarming safety problems, including the mishandling of plutonium, a radioactive explosive, at Los Alamos and a federal laboratory in Idaho; the mis-shipment of hazardous materials, including nuclear explosive materials; and the repeated contamination of work areas and scientists by radioactive particles. The articles were based in part on the board’s reports.
The federal facilities where nuclear weapons are produced are run by corporations that have collectively earned more than $2 billion in profit from the work over the past decade. Many of the firms' officials have expressed chagrin at occasional publicity about their mishaps and accidents.
Hamilton withdrew his proposal on Oct. 19 — the same date that CPI disclosed in an article co-published with USA Today Sullivan’s plan to eliminate the safety board. Reached by telephone, Hamilton declined comment on the proposal or its withdrawal.
Klotz’s proposal drew criticism from several independent observers of the board’s work. Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nonprofit organization that closely monitors the government’s activities at nuclear sites in New Mexico, said the reports at issue “provide almost the only window into the safety status of defense nuclear facilities.” Without them, he said, the public might never know if an accident occurs.
“It’s not [Klotz’s] job to tell the safety board how to do their work,” Mello said. “Shame on him.”